Make a Difference for Dominicans of Haitian Descent

It may seem like you’re too far-away to do much about the crisis affecting Dominicans of Haitian descent. But you can make a difference right now, without even leaving your seat.

In my last post, I wrote about my journey to the Dominican Republic with American Jewish World Service (AJWS) to learn about the social justice issues affecting the country. (See my previous post here). I also posted a link to petition that you can sign encouraging the United States government to pressure the DR to change its laws and stop violating the human rights of its citizens.

I now have the following request: please copy the following letter (verbatim – just add the name of your place of residence) and send it to your senators and representatives. These letters make a tremendous difference.

I have put the links for finding your senators’ and representatives’ names/snail-mail addresses and email addresses below. It makes no difference if you send it via email or snail-mail. (For email, just cut and paste the letter below, using your own name/city & state, into the email form found on your senators’/representative’s pages. For snail mail, cut and paste the letter below onto a letter, using your own name/city & state, and mail to the mailing address found on your senators’/representatives’ page.)

And one final request (from AJWS): After you’ve submitted your email or snail-mail letters to your senators and representatives, spend one last minute at the link below to let AJWS know you’ve submitted — very important for their follow-up efforts as we conduct our advocacy together with our partners in the Dominican Republic.

Let AJWS know that letters have been sent to US senators and representatives: Tracking Form

Thank you!

To find the name and mailing/email address of your representative or senator, click on these links:

Dear Representative/Senator [insert the name of your elected official here],

As a concerned citizen from [insert name of your town here] I am deeply troubled by the plight of Dominicans of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic.

In 2010, the Dominican Republic changed its constitution and stipulated that children born to “irregular migrants” after 2010 would not be able to obtain citizenship by birth in the country. A subsequent court ruling in 2013 retroactively applied this constitutional change, saying that children born to “irregular migrants” since 1929 were not citizens and thereby denied citizenship to hundreds of thousands of people born in that country, creating the largest stateless population in the Western Hemisphere. To dampen the international outcry at this travesty, the Dominican government proposed Law 169-14 as a solution. However, because of fundamental flaws in the law, it has now become a trap for Dominicans of Haitian descent. As a result, tens of thousands of people, including many who were born in the Dominican Republic, have been thrown into the shadows of society. Every facet of daily life in the country depends on having documents to prove legal status. Without documentation, this group of people is unable to go to school or work in the formal sector. They cannot access health care services, get married or register the birth of their children.

We urge you to use all means available to hold the government of the Dominican Republic accountable for ending the crisis in the Dominican Republic, where hundreds of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent are being denied their fundamental right to nationality because of their heritage. Tragically, many of the same Dominicans of Haitian descent are fearful for their lives because the process to nationality is not transparent. It is all too easy for this population to be exploited and persecuted. As they are systematically denied their citizenship, they are subsequently disenfranchised and are being barred from voting in the upcoming national elections in May, 2016.

The international community cannot stand idly by while state-sanctioned discrimination strips away the dignity and fundamental human rights of innocent people.

We ask that you take immediate action to urge the U.S. Department of State to demand that the Dominican government:

  • Does not disenfranchise Dominicans of Haitian descent;
  • Immediately restores legal status of those who have been denied their nationality;
  • Has transparent and accessible processes to restore nationality.

As Jews, we are all too familiar with this kind of persecution, which our ancestors endured at the hands of oppressive governments. Such oppressions included expulsions of Jews from European countries during the Middle Ages, and Jews having their citizenship and rights stripped away in Nazi Germany, Vichy France and other countries. We stand in solidarity with Dominicans of Haitian descent and Haitian migrants at this crucial time.

Sincerely yours,

[your name]
[your city, your state]

Rabbinic Global Justice Trip to the Dominican Republic (Jan., 2016)

The Dominican Republic is a country of startling contrasts: breathtaking beauty and abject poverty. The social justice issues plaguing the country are heartbreaking. We can help make a difference.

“Tzedek, Tzekek Tirdof – Justice Justice You Shall Pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20)

In January I travelled to the Dominican Republic with American Jewish World Service on a Rabbinic Global Social Justice Fellowship to bear witness and learn about the social justice issues affecting the country. My senses were overwhelmed with everything I saw, heard, felt and experienced. (Read here and here to find out more about my week with AJWS and how you can make a difference).

Here are some of the images that illustrate the highlights of my trip.

To learn more, please visit

Chanukah: Lighting the Sparks of Justice

My six-year old nephew Max is a wonderful combination of raucous Ninja-turtle-loving boy and mature-beyond-his years sensitive soul.

I love sitting with him in restaurants as he spontaneously compliments our server by telling her: “You’re beautiful!” Or, when we’re at a family gathering, he will suddenly tell everyone: “I love you! Group hug!”

So when my sister-in-law posted this photo of Max on Facebook from the first night of Chanukah, I wasn’t surprised to see the most beautiful expression of joy on his face as he observed his Chanukiyah with its glowing candles (a Chanukiyah is a menorah specifically used for Chanukah. A menorah is any multi-branched candelabrum). He made this chanukiyah himself and his face is just radiant – like the candles:

Max Chanukah 2015

Max, and his nine-year-old sister Zoe, care about the world around them. Even at their young ages, they understand that not everyone feels the warmth and glow of the holiday lights, or the love of family and friends, or the feeling of having food in their bellies or the security of a safe and secure home.

The word “chanukah” means “dedication.” Historically, our holiday is a celebration of religious freedom – freedom of the Jewish people’s right to practice our own religion in our own country in safety and security. We celebrate the rededication of our Temple in Jerusalem which had been desecrated by the Greek/Syrian army in 165 BCE. The actual ritual celebration evolved to become a “Festival of Lights.”

(For a more complete description of Chanukah – please see the description here: History of Chanukah)

There are those who still threaten to fracture our world today. Every day, we read of examples of xenophobia (fear of foreigners or “the other”), hatred, violence, war, bloodshed, refugees with nowhere to go, hunger, poverty, homelessness, racism. The list of maladies which afflicts us seems never-ending.

Yet, Chanukah is all about hope. The flames on the candles remind us that all it takes is one spark to light a flame: a flame that leads to justice, a flame that leads to healing and wholeness. One flame in the darkness can bring great light, great warmth to a very dark place: one spark of righteous deeds can inspire others to do the same.

This Chanukah, this Festival of Lights, as we kindle our Chanukah candles, I hope that we can dedicate ourselves anew to bringing justice, hope and light to our broken world.

Let each of us be that spark or flame that ignites others to join in repairing our world: “ani v’atah n’shaneh et ha’olam” – together, you and I can change the world.

And we’ll work together to keep the flame alive, as Peter, Paul and Mary sing: “Don’t Let the Light Go Out”


Character Counts!

If you drive down the road in Highland Park, Illinois, on many street corners you are likely to see a half-folded “Stop” sign with with the words: 


In Highland Park

The sign then highlights one of six “Pillars of Character” which the Highland Park local government and educational community feel are an integral part of our communal philosophy: Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring and Citizenship. The Highland Park “Character Counts Campaign” aims to integrate classroom learning, “on the streets” learning and communal learning to instill the values implicit in these six pillars.

"Character Counts" Stop Sign in Highland Park, Illinois
“Character Counts” Stop Sign in Highland Park, Illinois

Each stop sign lists a different “pillar”. As you are driving around town, you can’t help but to notice and read these wonderful messages.

When I first moved to Highland Park, I was impressed with these signs all around town. “Wow!” I thought, “The messages on these signs are very Jewish in nature.”

The rabbis of old taught:

“Rabbi Elliezer said: Let the honor of your fellow be as dear to you as your own. How so? This teaches that even as on looks out for his fellow’s honor, so should he look out for his own honor. And even as no man wishes that his own honor be held in ill repute, so should he wish that the honor of his fellow shall not be held in ill repute.” (Rabbi Elieler ben Hyrcanus, in Ethics of the Fathers, chapter 2, paragraph 15; commentary from Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan, chapter 15.

Our Highland Park “Character Counts” Campaign is about preserving honor and dignity. It is about teaching us to respect ourselves and those in our midst. It teaches the value of community and what it means to be an active and participating member of community.

I’ve been watching my 7th grade Religious School students live out these “Six Pillars of Character” all year.

I teach them on Wednesday late afternoons. They come to me after a long day of regular school. They are tired, hungry and now have another 1.5 hours of Judaic studies. Sometimes, it’s hard for them to sit still, they love the social time with each other. Many of them have been together as a group since kindergarten or first or second grade.

They are a terrific group of young teenagers. Each one of them has committed to remaining in Religious School after his or her celebration of Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

Each of these students, like many B’nai Mitzvah across North America, participates in Tikkun Olam or Mitzvah projects during this year of Bar/Bat Mitzvah. These are special social justice projects chosen by each student. The goal is for them to personally engage in the work of caring for others and repairing our world. Becoming Bar and Bat Mitzvah implies accepting the privileges and responsibilities of Jewish adulthood. Those responsibilities include continuing one’s Jewish learning, participating in the life of the Jewish community, celebrating Holy Days and taking care of our world. It also means that “Character Counts.”

One of my students, Chloe S., is the true exemplar of our “Character Counts” campaign. She is as much my teacher as she is my student. She conducts herself with graceful dignity. She volunteers as a “machonik” (student teacher) in the religious school. She has a wonderful way of being present with others. She and her family participate fully in the life of our congregational community. She takes it upon herself to learn new things, if she feels that her education was lacking.

Her Torah portion for her Bat Mitzvah talked about the building of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary (or Tabernacle) that the Israelites built and carried with them in the wilderness as they traveled from Egypt to the Promised Land. Chloe said to herself, “I never learned about this Mishkan before!” So she and her father decided to build one, to help themselves learn more about it, to understand more deeply what it symbolized and what it meant.

On the morning of her Bat Mitzvah celebration, they surprised me and presented the completed model to me as a gift. So that I could use it to teach others about the Mishkan, its purpose and meaning.

Side view of the model of the Mishkan.
Side view of the model of the Mishkan.
Model of the Mishkan - the Portable Sanctuary (or Tabernacle) that the Israelites carried in the wilderness
Model of the Mishkan – the Portable Sanctuary (or Tabernacle) that the Israelites carried in the wilderness

If the future of our world is in the hands of these young people, we are in very good hands indeed!

You and I Can Change the World

When I was in high school, I was part of a Jewish folk-singing trio with two of my friends. We called ourselves “Hashoshanim” – The Roses. We performed for synagogues and other Jewish organizations across New Jersey and New York in the late 1970’s.

One of our favorite songs was a popular Israeli song by Arik Einstein and Miki Gavrielov, “Ani V’atah”: You and I will change the world, you and I, then all will join us.

Together, we can change the world.
Together, we can change the world.

The message of this song was a lesson that my parents instilled within me from the time I was young: each one of us has the ability to make a difference in this world. Not only that, but our Jewish tradition teaches us that we are obligated to do our part to make this world a better place for others, a concept known as “tikkun olam” – repairing the world.

We learn from the Torah, “tzedek, tzedek tirdof – justice, justice shall you pursue…” (Deuteronomy 16:20). My parents taught us from a young age how to make these words a reality in our lives by:

  • Encouraging us to give tzedakah (charity) from our own money on a regular basis;
  • Taking us to march in rallies in Manhattan and Washington, DC to support Israel, to free Soviet Jews, to fight against the war in Viet Nam;
  • Speaking out for those who are unable to speak for themselves.
  • Keeping social justice issues on the forefront of our congregational agendas and on our agenda for conversation at home.

I continue to be passionate about social justice issues throughout my life. I hear my father’s voice telling me: “Sharon, the Talmud teaches us, ‘once the eye has seen and the ear has heard, you can no longer pretend to be uninvolved or unaffected. You must ACT.'”

During rabbinical school, I had the opportunity to travel to the USSR with two classmates to visit Refuseniks and bring in much needed supplies. I spent 4.5 months in South Africa at the height of Apartheid, working with Reform congregations there and learning about the situation and what we could do back at home to help ameliorate the pain and suffering caused by Apartheid.

My tikkun olam work since ordination has been broad and varied. It has included:

  • starting the first Jewish AIDS Committee in Canada;
  • continuing to visit the FSU and working with the Jewish communities in Belarus to bring in much needed medical supplies; teaching about Pesach and leading Pesach seders;
  • organizing and starting the first Mitzvah Day at my former congregation in Connecticut – a program that has been going on for almost two decades now and has the highest congregational participation outside of High Holy Days;
  • Working with the Canadian Reform Movement on a National program to stop Human Trafficking;
  • Partnering with the Canadian Reform Movement and ARZA Canada on many Israeli social justice programs.
  • And so much more!

I therefore feel so honoured and thrilled to be selected to participate in the American Jewish World Service (AJWS.) Global Justice Fellowship for Rabbis for the 2014-2015 year.

American Jewish World Service
American Jewish World Service

The fellowship is done in conjunction with our work in our own congregations. AJWS feels that congregational rabbis play key roles in our own communities when it comes to coalition building, community organizing and raising awareness about critical issues.

The program includes an 8-10 day educational trip to Kenya in August. We’ll learn from extraordinary local human rights activists who are using grassroots organizing tactics to fight discrimination and sexual and gender-based violence against women, girls and the LGBT community. Back at home, we will engage in innovative training sessions to develop skills in community organizing and advocacy. The goal is to mobilize and organize our communities in support of the wonderful work that AJWS does across the globe and other efforts to promote global justice, as we advocate for human rights and try to end poverty across the world.

As I begin this fellowship this March, I will be blogging about the work I am doing. I hope you will follow my blog and join in our efforts.

“Ani v’atah n’shaneh et ha-olam – together, you and I CAN change the world!”

To learn more about American Jewish World Service and the wonderful work that they do across the world, click here.


Food for Body, Mind and Spirit

Welcome to my first blog post!

When I was one, my father began his rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. (He was ordained from HUC-JIR, NY in 1966). My late mother told me that one of my favorite activities was to play: “Don’t bother me, I’m writing a sermon!”

Me at age 2, playing "rabbi" with my baby brother.
Me at age 2, playing “rabbi” with my baby brother.

I grew up with the synagogue as my second home, feeling just as comfortable running around on the bima, as I felt running around my own house.

I loved being involved in my father’s Temple. It touched something deep inside of me. I was president of my youth group, I started our congregation’s Soviet Jewry Committee, I went to Israel for the first time the summer after I became Bat Mitzvah.

My parents instilled within us the values of Tikkun Olam – Social Justice. They took us marching in rallies for Soviet Jewry, Viet Nam and Israel in New York City and Washington, DC. They taught us the Talmudic teaching: “once the eye has seen and the ear has heard, you can no longer pretend to be uninvolved or unaffected.” And they taught us to use our voices to speak up for those who could not speak for themselves.

My parents and grandparents also taught us the value of “audacious welcoming and hospitality”. My paternal grandmother was a gourmet chef who was renowned for everything that came out of her kitchen.

My mother taught us early in life how to bake challah and other kinds of homemade bread (although when we were growing up, we did not appreciate bringing our lunches to school on thickly-sliced homemade whole grain bread. Why couldn’t we have WonderBread like the other kids?!).

As the oldest of six children, (I have four younger brothers and a younger sister), I quickly learned how to take care of things in the kitchen. I also learned how to experiment with my cooking and baking.

And I learned that I could combine my love of Judaism and my “audacious hospitality” to create community and strong relationships.

Dr. Ron Wolfson, in his new book, Relational Judaism, writes: “What really matters is that we care about the people we seek to engage. When we genuinely care about people, we will not only welcome them, we listen to their stories, we will share ours, and we will join together to build a Jewish community that enriches our lives.”

Throughout my 25 years in the rabbinate, I have created strong and vibrant relationships wherever I have been. I have nurtured and sustained those relationships through teaching, listening, sharing, healing…by doing all those things that rabbis do. But I also enhance those relationships by welcoming people into my home. By sharing myself and my love of cooking and food with my friends and guests, I hope to transform my relationships into something stronger and deeper.

I do agree with Dr. Ron Wolfson that Judaism is all about creating relationships, nurturing those relationships and strengthening them. Shabbat Shalom!

This blog will sometimes share my Jewish views, sometimes my recipes and thoughts on “audacious hospitality” and sometimes, this blog will combine the two. You will find sections for my sermons and divrei Torah (“sermonettes”) and sections for my recipes. I welcome all comments and will try to respond as I am able.

I want to thank Jennifer Lask for all her help in setting this up for me. Jen – you are terrific and I so appreciate your help! The “appearance” is still “in process” so please be patient as we get it going.